GOODYEAR, AZ (3TV/CBS 5)–Firefighters put their lives on the line every day for us. But experts say, it’s actually cancer that’s killing our first responders more often than fire.
There are laws in place to help them. But some firefighters say getting that support is proving to be a battle.
Gilbert Aguirre is a Goodyear firefighter, he, along with two other firefighters all worked at the same station together and were all diagnosed with cancer.
One of them is no longer here to tell his story.
Legally they should be covered by workman’s comp but he says it’s not happening.
“It’s just been, it’s been heartbreaking,” said Aguirre, who has recently lost his best friend an brother in boots.
“I was diagnosed in June of 2015 and a few months later he was diagnosed of his cancer,” said Aguirre.
He’s talking about Austin Peck, who was also a Goodyear firefighter and lost that battle just a few weeks ago.
Now Gilbert is left fighting his own battle.
“The one thing I wasn’t expecting was and wasn’t prepared to go through battle-wise was dealing with workman’s comp.”
Since being diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia four year ago, he’s been fighting for coverage through Workman’s comp.
Workman’s comp is meant to cover job-related illnesses and injuries.
Aguirre’s cancer is presumed to be job-related under Arizona law.
But CopperPoint American Insurance which administers workman’s comp for the City of Goodyear, continues denying Aguirre’s claim
“I don’t know how they can sleep at night,” said Senator Paul Boyer.
Senator Boyer drafted House Bill 2161, the state’s law that includes cancer coverage for firefighters.
“It was one of the hardest fights I’ve ever had to fight at my time down here, but it was one of the most worthwhile fights because these are our heroes that are on the front-lines and they tell me it’s not a matter of if I get cancer but when and that’s sad to me,” said Boyer.
Aguirre’s fight is a common one for firefighters. It’s one Peck never won.
“The last few months that he [Peck] was alive he struggled a lot with just trying to get coverage insurance for him to get the treatments he still needed. He said that fighting the workman’s comp is way harder than fighting his cancer,” said Aguirre.
Aguirre has appealed all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court, and won.
“But all that means is that I get to start the process over again.”
Arizona’s Family reached out to the City of Goodyear, they sent us the letter they recently sent to CopperPoint because they too had concerns, stating in part:
“…CopperPoint used the same doctor to conduct independent medical exams in two cases submitted by Goodyear employees that were denied for coverage. This same doctor has now testified he had never found a causal relationship between cancer and firefighting in any of his case reviews…
“…we are asking that this doctor not be used in Goodyear cases…”
We then reached out to CopperPoint which blamed their denials on how the law was written stating in part:
“The law addressing firefighter cancer claims contains very specific criteria that must be met in order for a cancer claim to be covered.”
“Gilbert meets all of those specifics of the law he should be covered,” said Senator Boyer.
Senator Boyer says CopperPoint is flat-out breaking the law.
“If you or I break the law there’s consequences, so how can they break the law and there be no consequences,” asked reporter LiAna Enriquez.
“Because they have the high priced attorneys that can skirt the law,” responded Senator Boyer.
Meanwhile these firefighters continue to put their lives on the line, expecting they’ll be covered if they get sick or injured.
But for some it’s not happening and while they’re waiting, some are dying.
“These insurance companies I promise you, they know if they drag it out long enough most firefighters are just gonna throw up their hands and say ‘I’ll accept whatever fate that I have’,” said Senator Boyer.
“Or die in the process,” asked reporter LiAna Enriquez.
“That’s right,” responded Senator Boyer.
For Aguirre, he says he’ll continue to fight…for his family, for his fellow brothers and sisters, and for the one’s, like Peck, who no longer can.
“We’re gonna do this together. I know cancer in the fire service is really big 70 percent of us will get a cancer so I know it will be an ongoing thing so I hope this whole thing makes it easier for the next person coming through with a cancer,” said Aguirre.
CopperPoint Insurance statement in full:
“CopperPoint does not discuss individual workers’ compensation claims but offers the following statement as to firefighter cancer
claims in general. CopperPoint treats all injured workers, including firefighters, with dignity and respect. We investigate the facts surrounding all claims (including those filed by firefighters) and apply Arizona’s workers’ compensation law to those facts on a case by case basis. CopperPoint has accepted the covered claims of firefighters and professionally manages these claims. We deny claims only when the facts of a particular case do not support a covered claim under the law. The law addressing firefighter cancer claims contains very specific criteria that must be met in order for a cancer claim to be covered. CopperPoint is actively working with legislators and stakeholders to identify solutions to address firefighter cancer claims.”